Inspired Chicago | KNOED

On one of the few snowy days we've had so far this year, I spent the afternoon at KNOED in Ravenswood on the north side of Chicago - sitting down with coffee in Kim and Kyle's adorable studio, getting to know the story of how this couple started KNOED, and see the amazing behind the scenes action of what goes into creating a brand - yeah, this interview was inspirational.

Out of all the creatives I've interviewed in Chicago so far for this feature series, I've yet to meet such a dynamic and adorable couple as these two. From being independent designers competing against each other, to pitching a duo project (that didn't get approved), to building a thriving company that allows them to work together, these two are kinda #couplegoals.

Thanks so much to Kim and Kyle for letting me in your studio, hear your story, and photograph your incredible work. Can't wait to see what else y'all accomplish. :)

Q. What do you call yourself?

That’s a hard question to answer because it’s changed over the years from designer to creative director to partner, owner. At heart we’re designers, even though we own a company it comes down to the vision and the design, so we’re designers.

Designer and artist Kim from KNOED interview by Chicago photographer Katharine Hannah

Q. How did you get into design?

I went to high school way back when and there wasn’t a graphic arts program at all, it wasn’t even heard of. I had this one art teacher in high school for four years and he got to know my style through jewelry, pottery, printmaking work. Senior year we were trying to figure out what we wanted to do and he said he thought I would be good at graphic design, and I was like what’s that?

I guess we sort of did a graphic design project in high school, where we designed a menu and to-go bag but it was all done with our hands and it was laying type with our hands, drawing the whole thing, cutting and pasting. After that I started looking into what graphic design was to understand it better and then I went to Harper College and they didn’t have a design program either. So I started taking as many digital computer graphic courses as I could. I knew I wanted to go from Harper to Northern Illinois University (NIU) and major in graphic design, but before I went to a four year school which I took very seriously I wanted to really understand graphic design. I took my third year at Harper part time so that I could work full time at a design firm to understand it. I was a receptionist for a year at the design firm and they put Photoshop and Illustrator on my computer which was great and I got to understand the tools. My boss knew I was interested in it so he took me along to meetings, I got to be a part of photo shoots, and he took me to the NIU portfolio show. In that year I really understood it and knew that was what I wanted to be doing.

Kim Knoll of KNOED branding and design company on Chicago's north side
Echo Vie Chicago beauty company product photography for  Inspired Chicago  interview with KNOED

Q. What is graphic design to you?

It’s digital art, so it’s all done on a computer. But I personally think the best graphic design is a combination of fine art and digital art, where you’re doing some things by hand, scanning them in, and then using the computer to put it all together. Some of my favorite work from other people is done that way and it’s really inspiring to hear them talk about it, because it’s like okay, we’re all just experimenting. It’s like combining expression with purpose for businesses.

Q. Do you use a combination of hand drawn and computer graphics?

Yeah we try to as much as we can. There’s some projects that it doesn't feel right for, but I would say 70% of our projects we incorporate some hand drawn element. It’s important to us because it makes it interesting and fun. We love just experimenting and seeing what things can become. We worked with a company that wanted a handwritten logo, we could have just bought a handwritten font but no, it should be handwritten. It should have that really fluid connection of letters in the most natural way, and show the marks that the pen is making. We really geek out on that stuff. Also, if it’s truly hand-done, it’s something that no one else can really replicate - like if you buy a texture online, anyone else can be using the same one.

Studio space inspiration from Chicago's branding and graphic design studio KNOED
Kim Knoll interviewed for  Inspired Chicago , a series that features Chicago's creative entrepreneurial women

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Branding and graphic design studio KNOED interviewed for  Inspired Chicago  feature series
Branding and graphic design studio KNOED interviewed for  Inspired Chicago  by Katharine Hannah

Q. How did KNOED start?

It started January 11, 2011 and that was not intentional at all, it was just the day our website was ready. Leading up to that I had been working for 6 years as a designer for other people. To back up, after graduating college I moved to Arizona and worked there for almost 3 years as a designer, first in-house and then at a design firm. I ended up moving back to Chicago and worked for 3 more years at an ad agency and a design firm. I always knew I didn’t like having a boss. I didn’t like that they could nix a design - I would make 4 design options for a client and sometimes I wouldn’t get to show them if it wasn’t what the boss wanted to show. I wanted the opportunity to show the client and really see what they thought. Because everyone's opinion is their own and I loved working directly with clients when I had the chance.

My husband, Kyle, (we were married at the time) had been working for 6 years as well but he had a company with two other guys and they were kind of rowing the boat in opposite directions so they dissolved it. Then Kyle started freelancing from home with his clients. I was so jealous that he got to be on his own and I was still working for someone. It wasn’t until I got super fed up that I quit to go off on my own—and I think you have to get to the point where you are just so fed up to take such a big risk. So I left my job and started freelancing from home too, so we were both doing it back to back. We competed with each other for work for a year, but we would also help one another out from time to time. One day, Kyle got an inquiry from a kitchen designer in River North and it was a great opportunity, but it was too big for just him. He asked me if I wanted to pitch the project with him and I thought it would be so fun to work with him on it, so we pitched the company together and the guy was so confused. We didn’t get the project—and we agreed it was confusing.

Interview with KNOED designers in Chicago's Ravenswood neighborhood
Kim Knoll for  Inspired Chicago  feature, interviewed in KNOED's studio space in Ravenswood

So we thought ‘what if we took this seriously and started a company together?’ We talked about the idea for a month or two, and decided to do it. All we did was combine our portfolios and call ourselves Knoed—we still were in our condo but the perception of us changed dramatically. When we freelanced, we were being subcontracted a lot of big agencies and hardly had any direct clients of our own, but once we became Knoed the agencies stopped calling us for work. Then the phone started ringing from small businesses and startups, which is what we wanted. We took baby steps with the company by eventually moving out of the house to a coworking space, and did that for a year. In that year, we saved up enough money and had enough work coming in to get our own studio space.

Now we’re at a point where we could hire but we like it just being the two of us, so we have to say no to a lot of projects.

Koval distillery design by KNOED branding and graphic design studio in Chicago

Q. Why did you choose Chicago?

It’s just home. I grew up here, Kyle grew up in Rockford. We just love Chicago. We’ve thought about moving in the last couple years, considered going out West but nothing feels like this. I like how it’s not competitive, everyone is truly happy for each other to get work, we help each other, and it’s really supportive. I think it’s a good city to start a business in, and I can’t imagine having started it anywhere else.

Q. What is a brand to you?

A brand is the experience. We’re creating the whole experience. It’s not just about how it looks… it’s also about how it feels and what that person is experiencing when they interact with it. So everything we’re choosing—the paper weight, the color, the texture, the printing method—it can come off really cheap or luxe and expensive. Everything matters...what type you’re using, how you’re using it, what images you’re showing, the graphics, color, patterns, paper and printing method… all together it creates this vibe that people start to understand and emotionally connect with.

Echo Vie luxury skin care company product photography for KNOED branding and graphic design studio

Q. What all goes into creating a brand?

We start out with a whole discovery process and try to understand what the client’s core values are, how they’re positioning themselves in the market, who they’re trying to target, their competitors, etc. We look at their top 3-5 main competitors to see what they’re doing and then we do something that they’re not doing. We’ve noticed that in every industry, companies all start to copy each other and so there tends to be a pattern or some overlap in what they’re all saying and how they represent themselves. We try to find opportunities and make recommendations on how our client can stand out in the market or industry without alienating them.

When we find out what those things are it helps us start to paint a picture in our heads of what the vision can be. We try to get inspiration from whatever the product or service is—the ingredients, how people use it, where they use it, etc.—all that stuff starts to form ideas in our heads and becomes the inspiration behind our concepts. Once we start seeing the picture in our minds, we have to get it out and show the client what it is before we dive too deep, so we do mood boards. We do 3 mood boards that are all in line with our discovery and strategy but they’re all visually different. We look at things like photography style, colors, typography, textures, patterns, and we’re creating a whole mood for what the brand could be. Usually they immediately gravitate towards one of them and then we use that as a springboard for all of the work that follows.

Q. Were there alternatives to being a designer or was that always something you wanted to pursue?

I didn’t consider anything else. I knew early on that this was what I wanted to do. I knew I always wanted to do something with art and then in high school I realized it was graphic design. But honestly, I don’t think I’m good at anything else. This is it!

Katharine Hannah

Katharine’s work has graced the walls of institutions such as The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Harold Washington Library of Chicago, and local galleries such as Dreambox Gallery, Siragus Gallery and Blick Art Materials. She has also been featured on websites such as the Huffington Post, Phlearn, Fstoppers, Tigress Magazine for Girls, Bitchtopia, and Golden Boy Press.

In addition to photography, Katharine has been a mentor and educator in the arts since 2013. She has worked with students in various organizations and projects over the last two years, including Hive Chicago’s PROjectUS initiative and Digital Youth Network’s Digital Diva’s and Chicago City of Learning programs.